Osama bin Laden was disposed of last April, but al-Qaeda’s intention to commit acts of terrorism against the U.S. and its allies is undeterred. In his testimony this week to the joint congressional intelligence hearing, CIA director David Petraeus warned, “Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, the United States continues to face a serious threat from al Qaeda and its worldwide affiliates and sympathizers.”
Al-Qaeda’s top operatives may be dead and its core weakened, but the organization is finding strength in its African affiliates. According to U.S. Africa Command head General Carter Ham, al-Shabaab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Boko Haram in Nigeria are seeking closer cooperation in waging attacks against the countries in which they operate, the region, and the U.S.
In the past, al-Shabaab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda affiliate, focused its attacks against the Transitional Federal Government and the African Union’s AMISOM peacekeeping force. However, in July 2010, al-Shabaab committed its first transnational attack, with two bombings in Kampala, Uganda, where crowds gathered to watch the FIFA World Cup. Uganda was targeted because of its contributions to AMISOM.
Neighboring countries were also put on notice. Al-Shabaab poses a significant threat to the U.S. as it has become adept at recruiting fighters from the diaspora community. In many cases, members of the diaspora have the flexibility to travel as they possess American or European passports, thereby increasing the opportunities for al-Shabaab to infiltrate the homeland.
An al-Qaeda affiliate that is believed to be in regular contact with al-Shabaab is AQIM. Emerging during the Algerian war in the 1990s, AQIM was originally called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Only five years ago did the organization declare allegiance to al-Qaeda and emerge under its new name. Operating in Niger, Mali, and Algeria, AQIM is known for recruiting by force and taking hostages for ransom. Militants are active in waging attacks throughout the region, including its most recent suicide bombing on an Algerian military academy.
AQIM’s operations have expanded in its affiliation with the Nigerian Islamic insurgency, Boko Haram (translation: “Western education is sin”). Created in 2002 by the radical cleric Mohammad Yusuf, Boko Haram didn’t use violence in its attempts to overthrow the Nigerian government. It wasn’t until Yusuf was killed in a violent crackdown by the Nigerian army that Boko Haram quickly expanded its operations.
After waging attacks against the Nigerian government for several years, Boko Haram took responsibility last month for its first international attack against U.N. headquarters in the capital city of Abuja. The attack by the once-obscure sect caught the foreign public off guard and alerted the international community to the sect’s growing capabilities. Just weeks before the attack on the U.N., General Ham voiced concern regarding Boko Haram’s affiliation with AQIM: “I think it would be the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us [the U.S.] as well.”
Analysis by the U.S. Department of Defense has also shown that the bomb that detonated at the U.N. headquarters showed similar characteristics to the improvised explosives used by AQIM. Furthermore, Boko Haram fighters are known to travel regularly to Chad, Mali, and Somalia for training.
Despite Africa’s emergence as a terrorist hotbed, U.S. military presence on the continent is small, with AFRICOM forces often limited to diplomatic and development initiatives. According to General Ham, AFRICOM seeks “to enable African solutions to African security challenges.”
Encouraging African nations to effectively address emerging terrorist threats, AFRICOM takes an active role in training African militaries and security forces. Training exercises often focus on professionalism in addition to training in counterterrorism. Mali and Mauritania are just two African nations that benefit from Western military training.
Africa has long been a potential haven for terrorist activity. The continent’s weak governance structure, combined with high levels of poverty, poor development and a burgeoning youth population outraged by the few opportunities available to them, provide conditions attractive to terrorist organizations. Independently, these organizations are threats to the countries where they operate and to the region. Combined, they are capable of generating the capabilities to wage attacks against the U.S. and the international community.